Participant Perspectives are a way for our program participants to share with you what it means to belong to Pink Pearl Foundation, and the benefits of participating in our of programs…
Overnight Retreats: Community, connections and the other “C word”
I am blessed to say I am a multiple-time young adult cancer survivor.
My journey with cancer began when I was a teenager with a primary diagnosis of high-grade osteosarcoma (bone cancer) throughout my entire left leg.
Several years later, while in university, I was diagnosed with a large, aggressive metastatic recurrence in my lungs with poor prognosis and palliative care treatment, which I have dealt with on and off throughout my twenties. After many long inpatient chemotherapy rounds, hundreds of blood transfusions, complex reconstructive surgeries, experimental treatments, many years of intensive physiotherapy and beyond, I am thankful to have reached remission beyond all odds. Having dealt with kidney failures, mobility challenges, chronic pain, ongoing medication needs and so forth throughout the years, the side effects due to treatments and complications can be additional stressors, like many other young adult survivors experience; however I am now living… truly. I carry and try to share a genuine appreciation for life these days, as well as a sincere gratitude for all those who have touched my life and supported me along the way.
Pink Pearl Foundation is a beautiful example of a part of life I only get to experience because I am a cancer survivor. This community of young women has been such an important part of my healing journey over the past few years. Although physical health needs were addressed well throughout my cancer journey, the emotional and social needs were neglected. Amid life-or-death circumstances, these elements of well-being did not seem to be priorities to my oncology/medical team, which is understandable, but still posed difficult challenges for me. A significant portion of my teen years and life into my twenties revolved around experiences that were atypical for my friends, my family, and my culture. Cancer was all-consuming. While peers were celebrating graduations, travels, relationships, successful careers, and other such milestones, my young life instead revolved around hospitals, spending time in bed at home, losing my independence, and at the core of it all, just trying to survive. I felt isolated and different. Even after treatment ended, I only wanted to sit in the back, unnoticed, not caring to speak up, not thinking I had any voice in this world that was so different from my own experiences and perspectives coloured by cancer. It was a given that I would never mention “the C word” anywhere.
Another young female survivor, who I now consider a great friend for life, introduced me to Pink Pearl a few years ago. I was a little nervous about attending my first retreat – how “on” and vulnerable I would have to be that weekend. I was thankful to have my survivor friend as my roommate for the retreat and she repeatedly reassured me that it would be a relaxing weekend of fun, friendship, and food. I walked into the room at my first retreat and immediately felt the warmth and excited energy in the room. As the incredible Program Team introduced themselves and the expectations for the weekend, they were so genuine, caring, and funny; they felt like my best girlfriends right away. I felt myself relax into the space. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, I knew God had placed me right where I was meant to be. Hearing the health and personal stories of these young women, I finally felt understood. It was a fluid, safe, inviting space for tears, cheers, sadness, hugs, shared pain, and laughs happening almost simultaneously among the group. We felt like we knew each other so well already… and it was still the first hour! It’s amazing how Pink Pearl facilitated these connections.
Throughout the weekend, these conversations and relationships only deepened over meals, games, walks, educational sessions, discussions, creative outlets, and friendship. It was refreshing to be so vulnerable, real, raw, and open with other young women who just “get it.” At the same time, cancer is not our whole story; we’re still young and want to celebrate living and experience moments of joy, regardless of where we are on our health journey. The retreat did this perfectly and it genuinely felt like an amazing girls’ weekend away in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I have been blessed to attend a few other retreats since then and the bonding only gets deeper and better each time.
As a young survivor, I struggled with processing and accepting my journey. I lived the cancer part of life as internally and inward as possible. Through support experiences, like my time shared with the Pink Pearl community, I am forever changed. Feeling understood, being empowered, and gaining the confidence in my voice and that I have a story to share, I have now become very active in the community as a speaker; a patient and family advocate; peer mentor and survivor supporter; and member of a national governmental advisory committee to help bring about change to the cancer patient/survivor experience. I now have the privilege of sharing my story and advocating for others – all this from a young girl who never used to say the word “cancer.”
I am so thankful to Pink Pearl for providing young female survivors with such an incredible community that intersects perfectly with the values I try to convey in life – hope, faith, love, supporting one another, giving back, inspiring change, and true compassion. Ultimately, we are made to be in community. Many of us lose that so suddenly as young women diagnosed with cancer. Pink Pearl recognizes this and not only provides us a thriving community, it goes beyond that – we are a family, a true sisterhood. I couldn’t be more thankful.
– Vinesha, Program Participant
“I was 17 years old when I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A.L.L.). On December 1, 2014, I arrived early morning to my high school, St. Joseph’s College, for soccer tryouts. After running a few warm-up laps, I fell really short of breath. My mom was called and immediately rushed me to emergency at Toronto General Hospital. After running blood tests, the hematology team delivered the news. That afternoon, my family came to my side to learn what the next steps of treatment would be. I was admitted into Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and began one month of intense chemotherapy (part of my two year treatment program). Prior to my diagnosis, I was a very healthy and active young woman, which is why the diagnosis came as a shock to everyone, especially me.
In the middle of my last phase of treatment, the maintenance phase, I was preparing to go back to school. I was accepted to George Brown College for Hotel Operations Management, a two-year diploma program. A Research Analyst at Princess Margaret, Seline, suggested that I apply for the Pink Pearl Foundation Scholarship. I had not heard of the Foundation, so I did some research and was astonished by the work they do. I submitted my application and was fortunate to be named a scholarship recipient in April 2016. It meant so much to have extra help financially. I used the funds to purchase my first year books and other materials needed. My parents have saved for my post-secondary education since the day I was born, but receiving this scholarship meant having some extra help to stand on my own financially once I graduate.
Upon receiving the scholarship, Pink Pearl’s Founder, Elise, invited me to attend the organization’s spring overnight retreat. It was my first retreat with any organization through my cancer journey so I was a little nervous at first, but ultimately so happy I attended. I met many different women and learned a lot. Being able to open up in such a safe environment meant so much to me. I hadn’t realized how important it was to connect with other people going through similar circumstances. Although we share different cancers, we are still connected by one thing—our strength to fight. I am grateful for Pink Pearl Foundation and all that it provides. I look forward to connecting with more young women at future retreats.”
– Adriana Lombardo, Program Participant, Age 19
Family Sailing Day
“I never thought that a few days after turning 28, and only six months after getting married, that I would battle a high-grade invasive and aggressive type of breast cancer. My oncology nurse at Walker thought that a young woman like me could benefit from the support that Pink Pearl Foundation has to offer. I contacted them right away to learn more. Shortly after joining, I decided that I wanted to attend the Foundation’s summer Family Sailing Day event with my husband.
We arrived at the marina in Port Colborne excited to meet the other Pink Pearl participants and their supporters. Right away, we made conversation and met people’s family members, all excited for our sailing adventure together. The sailboat captains (who volunteer their time and boats) all warmly welcomed us all aboard. Very quickly, open dialogues of each of our cancer journeys were being shared. Connections and new friendships formed instantaneously. The supporters soon realized how we were all dealing with similar challenges and obstacles brought on by a loved one being diagnosed with cancer.
Sailing on this special Family Sailing Day allowed me to feel like a participant rather than like a patient. This sailing trip provided us with an escape from the hospitals and cancer centres and from the darkness, fear, worry, stress, and physical and mental exhaustion that cancer causes. Instead, our focus was immediately shifted to the brightness of life, freeing our souls to bask in nature, all which helped calm mind and body. The wind blowing against my face and the sun bathing on my body made me feel alive!
At one point during the sail, the captain of our boat, Phil, allowed me to steer the vessel. Finally I began to feel a sense of control that cancer had taken away from me. This surreal moment combined with a supportive environment filled with compassion and hope from other Pink Pearl participants and their caregivers, helped give me the strength I needed to continue my cancer journey. After our sailboats docked back at the marina, we all enjoyed a picnic style lunch together under the pavilion. More conversations ensued and additional connections were made with these inspiring women. My husband and I also formed a relationship with our captain and his wife and that friendship still continues to this day. The following summer, my husband and I quickly registered again for the annual Family Sailing Day and we were back on board with the same captain, Phil, from our initial sail!
I would highly recommend attending Family Sailing Day as it provided us with a relaxing two-hour sail with fellow supporters who truly “get it”. I felt less alone in navigating through the scary, confusing, and overwhelming cancer world. Thank you to the dedicated team of over 30 volunteers at Pink Pearl Foundation for everything you continue to do for us all. I am honoured to be part of this important and amazing organization. I look forward to attending future events with you ladies!”
– Britiney Turasz, Program Participant, Age 32
“A cancer diagnosis is a hard pill to swallow, no matter what age, type or stage. I was most definitely not prepared to hear the news at age 27 (uterine cancer), and then again at age 29 (ovarian cancer). During those long and lonely years, I was in and out of surgery after surgery. And now, though it appears my team has removed all of the cancer, I am left with chronic pain, and left to deal with significant changes to my life and body.
Thankfully, my clinic nurse noticed how mentally and emotionally burnt out I seemed, and suggested I look to Pink Pearl Foundation for extra support. Don’t get me wrong, I am forever grateful for the unconditional love and support my family has shown me, but I needed a different type of support in this instance. I took my nurse’s advice and attended my first overnight retreat in November 2015. I was totally out of my comfort zone and really nervous. I had never done anything like this alone before in my life.
Within minutes of walking in, I was welcomed with open arms and smiles, and landed a pretty awesome roommate (whom I now call my great friend). Words cannot express how much comfort and support I feel when I participate in each retreat. There is no judgment. All the women in attendance are there for the same reason. The icing on the cake is forming lifelong friendships with others who know exactly what you are going through.
Silly games, relaxation, meditation exercises, art therapy and even special guest speakers—Pink Pearl Foundation covers it all over a few meaningful days. I cannot thank Pink Pearl Foundation enough for all the thoughtful and hard work put into all programs, events and initiatives they host. I look forward to all the Foundation has to offer in the future!”
– Lyndsie Smit, Program Participant, Age 30
“In January of 2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29. Being diagnosed at such a young age was a very scary and isolating experience to say the least. Not long after, I discovered Pink Pearl Foundation and its offered retreats. I had to sign up.
The overnight retreat gave me an opportunity to share stories and experiences with women who were going through something similar. It was such a great feeling to open up and chat with other young women—people who just ‘get it’. I created friendships that I know will last longer than my cancer journey.
The retreat programming was amazing. It’s a great mix of activities. For me, by far, the best part was meeting other young women battling cancer, listening to their stories, and feeling comfortable enough to share my story. I will definitely be returning to the Pink Pearl retreats and I look forward to the next one on November 25th!”
– Dory Kashin, Program Participant, Age 30
Black & White with a Touch of Pink
“My name is Sierra Collina and I’m a 25-year-old, two-time cancer survivor. My very long cancer journey began with a diagnosis of Ewing Sarcoma at the young age of 15. With zero knowledge cancer, this was a huge shock and adjustment for my family. I went through 12 months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation and a major surgery to remove my tumour and my sixth and seventh ribs. I was then in remission and able to get back to a somewhat “normal life”. What most people don’t understand is just because I am in remission does not mean I am 100% back to my normal self. This was a real struggle for not only me, but for my family and close friends.
I was cancer-free for two and a half years, in school again and back to work, when I was hit with another shock—a diagnosis of secondary cancer—Leukaemia. Without being given a moment to comprehend why this was happening again, I was admitted to the hospital and told I would need a transplant. It was during this time very confusing time that my hospital social worker told me about a new program called Pink Pearl Foundation. She thought it was be good for me and my mom to attend the Foundation’s very first retreat. I am so beyond thankful I did and I have attended retreats and events ever since.
Belonging to Pink Pearl has made a major impact on my life. I’m able to connect with women my age that have been through a similar situation, which can be very uplifting and inspiring. Throughout a cancer journey it is so important to know you are not alone, and that you can confide in other young women because they will truly understand the struggles of having cancer and the post long-term effects on your life.
One outstanding and memorable Pink Pearl initiative for me is the annual ‘Black and White with a Touch of Pink’ event held in Toronto every spring. It’s a night to get all dressed up and mingle with new and old friends, and also to raise money and awareness in support of young women who might have to face this horrible disease one day. My favourite features of the event are the silent auction, the prize games, and the various speakers sharing their cancer stories and giving everyone a better understanding of the importance of cancer support.
Pink Pearl has and will always be a big part of my life. It has helped me become a more confident and positive cancer fighter and survivor.”
– Sierra Collina, Program Participant, Age 25
MOTHERHOOD + CANCER
Becoming a New Mom and Cancer Patient in the Same Day
“A new mom and a cancer patient all on the same day. I went into early labour with my son who was born at 33 weeks via emergency c-section, at which time, the doctors found a mass on my cervix, which was later diagnosed as stage 2B cervical cancer. Unfortunately, it had also spread to my lymph nodes. If the HPV vaccine had been around when I was young, I would not have been diagnosed with cancer. Since my regular pap tests missed it, had I not gotten pregnant, the doctors would not have found the cancer until it was too late, so in fact, my son saved my life.
Since then, I have been undergoing aggressive chemotherapy and radiation: 30 daily radiation treatments; 4 treatments of internal radiation; and 11 sessions of chemotherapy with my last one scheduled after my son’s first birthday. “Hard” is not a strong enough word to depict the difficulty of facing cancer and parenthood at the same time, but I have been blessed with an incredible support system of family and friends, and my husband who has been the most exceptional father and partner.
After my diagnosis, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I couldn’t relate to the issues in new-mom groups nor identify with those in cancer groups who had many more grey hairs than me. My midwife told me about Pink Pearl and it was nice to finally find a place to belong. The fall retreat was my first time away from my son and it brought me a source of connection, inspiration, and of course, a few tears. I could finally find a place to call home.”
– Christa Wilkin, Program Participant, Age 34
Batting Cancer as a Mommy of Two
“A few months after giving birth to my daughter, Aria, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 34. My son Chase was 4 at the time. My first thought was, “Oh my gosh, does this mean my kids are now at a higher risk of getting these cancers?” My heart breaks when I think about it.
Since my diagnosis in December 2016, I have had 5 biopsies, 6 scans, 2 surgeries, numerous appointments with 8 different specialists and have recently began radiation therapy. This was not how I imagined I would be spending my maternity leave! Eventually I made a decision to put Aria in a daycare as I couldn’t take care of her and myself. The mastectomy I had in February left me with a lot of tightness and a limited range of motion in my shoulder and I still can’t life Aria. I miss holding her. Like, really holding her tight and close to me. I miss wrestling with Chase. Sometimes I miss my kids even when they are right in front of me!
Learning about Pink Pearl Foundation has been a blessing. It’s really nice to know that I am not the only woman in her 30s going through this. Through Pink Pearl, I have met others with similar experiences and now I don’t feel so isolated. Happy Mother’s Day to all the amazing moms out there!!!”
– Maja Gavrilovic, Program Participant, Age 34